The latent outburst and constitutional impertinence

A burst or explosion occurs when a mixture of chemical compounds reacts and the resulting compounds occupy a significantly larger volume than the first. A violent expansion then occurs in order to rearrange the elements and give the necessary space to the new configuration. In October 2019 the accumulation of citizen unrest exploded in this country; good proof that the existing structure was no longer capable of responding to the growing social demands and that a radical change in it was required to accommodate the needs of a different Chile. Not only did the system not meet those needs, but it was also perceived as a systematic abuser of citizens’ rights, favouring the most powerful to the detriment of the rest.

The political system’s response to try to reduce such social pressure was to open the space for constitutional change. This issue had always been latent in the public debate for a long time, but it had not been a central part of the explicit demands in the recent massive citizen marches, which focused more on very specific issues such as health, pensions and education, among many others.

Was constitutional change a pertinent response to the reasons for the outburst? I at least doubt it. I think it was only the best response that a desperate political class could give at the time. A gesture of ceding some power to the citizenry, but which in practice consisted of postponing an answer to the concrete problems. Passing the buck to a group of constituents and, in the process, operating as a kind of safety valve for citizen pressure. And the strategy worked, because the citizenry not only accepted the proposal but clung to it in desperation and turned it into the great hope for a solution to citizen demands and social conflict. So much so that the option was approved with almost 80% support, which included an important part of the so-called “historic third”, the most conservative.

There is no doubt that the Constitutional Convention became a tremendously complex space. It was a mixture of very diverse motivations, ranging from the understandable revanchist and/or re-foundational desires of some, to the hopes of others to obtain the recognition of neglected sectors, to those who tried to solve all the concrete demands of the street with the written document, while others aimed at more global dimensions. And of course, there was also that more minority conservative group which did not seriously intend to participate and which limited itself to discrediting the work of the Convention. All this in an unprecedented context of pandemic, which erased citizen demonstrations from the streets and created an atmosphere of pressing economic needs in a large part of the population.

The most conservative sectors, noting the trend that was taking on the conventional mood and the direction of radical change that was on the horizon in the future text, began a fierce smear campaign, also facilitated by the lack of judgement and immoral behaviour of some of the participants. The media coverage, driven by editorial lines of a markedly conservative bent, and the blatant appearance of numerous fake news stories, contributed significantly to discrediting a text whose final version, although it suffered from some errors and inconsistencies, at least had the virtue of proposing a structural framework that could serve as a basis for substantive changes that could aim to effectively resolve the historic demands of the citizens.

The final rejection of the text, with a resounding 62% against, created a kind of political vacuum. No one had really imagined that such a choice could be made. The small ultra-conservative sector argued that this closed the issue of constitutional change and thus validated the 1980 framework, while the vast majority believed that it did not and that a new process should be carried out again. And although this thesis finally won, the political and social scenario was very different from that of October 2019. A country suffering the consequences of a pandemic, with enormous emotional, economic and employment impacts, coupled with a public perception of extreme insecurity… and no demonstrations in the streets.

The process was then captured by the usual political class and designed to suit their own terms. The emotional blow that the rejection had on the most active sectors in favour of change, which led them to a kind of traumatic inaction, from which many have yet to recover, also helped a lot. And in this new scenario, with no real counterweight in the public discourse and now focused almost exclusively on the issue of citizen insecurity, the new composition of the drafting collective was, for the first time ever, in the hands of the most ultra-conservative sector that is explicitly opposed to constitutional change: the Republican Party.

What can be expected as a result of the work of a group where those who do not want and have never wanted change have absolute veto power? Even in the best-case scenario, for example, that this group aims to make its positions more flexible and improve its image with a view to increasing support for a future presidential candidacy, it is logical to think that its limit will be that it will not compromise on fundamental issues that guarantee the maintenance of a system that it has always considered ideal. In other words, the result will be absolutely conservative and maintain the structural basis of the system.

The general opinion is that this second attempt at constitutional change would be the last one possible to sustain without falling into a state of permanent political instability with serious consequences for the country. And I ask myself, is there any real possibility that the result will even aim to resolve the demands of the social outburst, which are clearly still there, latent and waiting for their moment to continue? It seems obvious to me that there is not. Neither maintaining the constitution of 1980, nor establishing this new one with a markedly conservative focus, addresses the profound need for change that is urgently needed by the citizenry.

Once the waters of this constitutional process are calm, the same old demands will resurface. And possibly aggravated by the experience of this latest structural overhaul of the traditional political world. An outburst needs a structure that really accommodates the resulting elements, and to try to contain it by means of a constitutional framework that only maintains the usual limits would be completely impertinent, so I predict a future awakening of citizen unrest with unsuspected consequences.

Ricardo Baeza Weinmann